Time for Afghan refugees’ repa­tri­a­tion

Pakistan Observer - - EDITORIALS & COMMENTS - Mo­ham­mad Jamil Email: mjamil1938@hot­mail.com

IT is more than three and a half decades now that Afghan refugees are liv­ing in Pak­istan, and among them there are crim­i­nals who are responsible for de­te­ri­o­rat­ing law and or­der sit­u­a­tion of the coun­try. There is a wide­spread per­cep­tion that they have be­come a se­cu­rity risk, as it is dif­fi­cult to sep­a­rate ex­trem­ist el­e­ments who live in the dis­guise of refugees. It is high time that they are sent back, as na­tion wants them to leave the coun­try im­me­di­ately. Since Pak­istan joined the war on ter­ror, Pak­istan suf­fered heav­ily in men and ma­te­rial, yet Afghan govern­ment con­tin­ued to blame Pak­istan for any ter­ror act in Afghanistan. Last year, the United Na­tions High Com­mis­sioner for Refugees (UNHCR) had re­quested Pak­istan to re­view its De­cem­ber 31, 2015 dead­line for the repa­tri­a­tion of Afghan refugees from the coun­try. UNHCR chief An­tónio Guter­res had called on Prime Min­is­ter Nawaz Sharif dur­ing his visit.

Prime Min­is­ter Nawaz Sharif had said: “Pak­istan took care of Afghan refugees as a sacred duty and their re­turn with dig­nity is a pri­or­ity for the govern­ment.” Any­how, the time has come that in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity should fo­cus on repa­tri­a­tion of Afghan refugees to Afghanistan. The US/NATO and Afghan govern­ment had en­tered into a strate­gic treaty through sign­ing of Bi­lat­eral Se­cu­rity Agree­ment (BSA). In this mi­lieu it should have also been bind­ing on both sides to re­solve the is­sue of mil­lions of Afghan Refugees (ARs). The UN and its sub­sidiary or­ga­ni­za­tions like UNHCR must come for­ward to take up the mat­ter with the US, NATO and EU mem­ber coun­tries to ar­range repa­tri­a­tion of ARs to their home­land. In the over­view of 2015 UNHCR coun­try op­er­a­tions pro­file Afghanistan, it was an­tic­i­pated that the newly-formed na­tional unity Govern­ment would cre­ate an en­abling en­vi­ron­ment for sus­tain­able re­turn of Afghan refugees.

The So­lu­tions Strat­egy for Afghan Refugees (SSAR) re­mains the main pol­icy frame­work for sus­tain­able rein­te­gra­tion of those re­turn­ing to Afghanistan. It stated that “in­sur­gency con­tin­ues to spread from south­ern Afghanistan to large ar­eas of the north and cen­tre and is likely to re­main a threat to sta­bil­ity in 2015”. The ques­tion is if due to poli­cies of the Afghan govern­ment peace is not achieved, will Pak­istan con­tinue to suf­fer? It has to be men­tioned that many un­de­sir­able el­e­ments dis­guised as refugees are in­volved in crimes like mur­der, tak­ing peo­ple ran­som for money and drug traf­fick­ing. Of­fi­cially, the year 2015 marked the end of the agree­ment that Pak­istan had with Afghanistan and the United Na­tions High Com­mis­sion for Refugees (UNHCR). Pak­istan For­eign Of­fice had said that it would like that the UNHCR and in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity to help the Afghan govern­ment in cre­at­ing nec­es­sary en­vi­ron­ment inside Afghanistan so that these peo­ple can re­turn.

But in­stead of tak­ing action, Brus­sels-based In­ter­na­tional Cri­sis Group (ICG) had ad­vised Pak­istan to ease the in­se­cure lives of the mil­lions of Afghan refugees on its ter­ri­tory. It asked Pak­istan to sign and rat­ify the 1951 Refugees Convention and its 1967 Pro­to­col; and that it should en­act a na­tional law for refugees cod­i­fy­ing long-term pro­tec­tion and rights. In­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity should re­al­ize that for more than three decades, the govern­ment and the peo­ple of Pak­istan have ac­com­mo­dated these refugees who are set­tled through­out Pak­istan. Ac­cord­ing to the United Na­tions Refugee Agency (UNHCR), some 1.6 mil­lion Afghans are legally re­sid­ing in Pak­istan, hav­ing been granted proof of reg­is­tra­tion (PoR) by the U.N. body. More than twice that num­ber is be­lieved to be un­law­fully dwelling here, pri­mar­ily in the north­ern tribal belt that bor­ders Afghanistan. Hav­ing that said, UNHCR should make ar­range­ments to repa­tri­ate Afghan refugees to re­lieve bur­den on Pak­istan.

The UNHCR has been op­pos­ing forced re­turn of the refugees and in­sists that Is­lam­abad should go for vol­un­tary repa­tri­a­tion of Afghans. Ac­cord­ing to the UN agency, only 56,000 Afghans had gone back to their home­land since Jan­uary last year un­der the vol­un­tary repa­tri­a­tion pro­gram

The UNHCR is pay­ing $150 to each refugee re­turn­ing un­der the pro­gram. Of­fi­cials be­lieve that vol­un­tary repa­tri­a­tion pro­gram has been a “joke” and may never re­solve the is­sue even in 10 to 15 years. The Khy­ber Pakhtunkhwa Cham­ber of Com­merce & In­dus­try has been say­ing that the pres­ence of the Afghans in the prov­ince puts a strain on its in­fra­struc­ture and its frag­ile econ­omy. UNHCR spokesper­son said the Afghan govern­ment with the as­sis­tance of donors had planned to build 48 rein­te­gra­tion sites for refugees who af­ter re­turn would get shel­ter. She said that work on 19 sites was in progress in dif­fer­ent prov­inces of Afghanistan.

Pak­istan is host to 1.5 mil­lion PoR card hold­ers, their date ex­pired on Dec 31, 2015, which had been ex­tended to June 30 2016. They con­sti­tute the world’s largest pro­tracted refugee pop­u­la­tion un­der the United Na­tions High Com­mis­sioner for Refugees (UNHCR) man­date in a sin­gle coun­try. In ad­di­tion, ac­cord­ing to Pak­istan govern­ment es­ti­mates, there are about 1 mil­lion un­doc­u­mented Afghans re­sid­ing in Pak­istan. Those pop­u­la­tions in­clude many who fled con­flict and re­pres­sion in Afghanistan dur­ing the late 1970s and early 1980s in­clud­ing their de­scen­dants. Some ar­rived as chil­dren, grew up in Pak­istan, mar­ried, and had chil­dren of their own who have never lived in Afghanistan. Oth­ers have ar­rived in the decades of tur­moil in Afghanistan since, seek­ing se­cu­rity, em­ploy­ment, and a higher stan­dard of liv­ing. A large num­ber of Afghan refugees now own prime prop­er­ties in all ma­jor cities in­clud­ing in the fed­eral cap­i­tal.

It means that they are de­priv­ing lo­cal peo­ple of jobs and busi­ness op­por­tu­ni­ties, as many of them are in busi­ness and are among the rich­est peo­ple in Is­lam­abad and other parts of Pak­istan. In the past, Pak­istan had re­peat­edly ex­tended sev­eral dead­lines it had fixed for the re­turn of the refugees at the re­quest of Kabul and UNHCR. The last dead­line had ex­pired in De­cem­ber 2015; how­ever, it ex­tended the dead­line till June 2016 on the re­quest of Afghan govern­ment and UNHCR. Pak­istan has been try­ing to help Afghanistan in the peace process, but Afghan gov­ern­ments have been un­grate­ful in the sense that they al­ways blamed Pak­istan for un­rest or any ter­ror at­tack in Afghanistan. In this back­drop, the govern­ment should not ex­tend any more date or give a new time­frame, but ask the UNHCR to make ar­range­ments to repa­tri­ate the Afghan Refugees im­me­di­ately. —The writer is a se­nior jour­nal­ist based in La­hore.

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